Notes on Moby Dick Themes

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Moby Dick Topic Tracking: Nature of Whaling

Chapters 1 - 15

Nature of Whaling 1: Ishmael chooses to go to Nantucket out of a feeling of loyalty because Nantucket is the first city to send out American whalers. This feeling of loyalty comes from the inherent powerfulness of whaling as a craft. The nature of the profession inspires this sort of feeling.

Nature of Whaling 2: The first of many discussions of the number of things whaling brings to the world; it established the city of New Bedford by bringing people to the port for the purpose of sailing out on whalers. Whaling is responsible for much more than the hunting of whales, a theme taken up later in such chapters as "The Advocate."

Chapters 16 - 30

Nature of Whaling 3: Despite the fact that whalemen are not often considered the best of company, they have survived more terrors in their day-to-day lives than normal people even dream of. They are well regarded by royalty, and they have helped to colonize foreign lands without violence. The oil from whales might even be the stuff that is used to anoint royalty, which means that whalers provide what's needed to even the highest seats of power.

Chapters 31 - 45

Nature of Whaling 4: The chapter on Ceteology is one of the longest in the book; however, at the end, Ishmael states he has only scratched the surface. Whalers hunt creatures so majestic, so numerous, that it is impossible for them to be fully understood and categorized, no matter how hard a man tries. Throughout the novel, Ishmael spends chapter upon chapter describing the physical build of the whale, the habits, the skull size, etc. This presentation serves not to diminish the mystery of the animal, but rather increase it; so much is known, and yet much more remains unknown.

Nature of Whaling 5: There are a number of routines on board a whaling ship, and the captain is treated like a king; this indicates a sort of closed society, one with its own defined hierarchy. It creates a miniature country, closed off from the rest of the world, with its king and his court. Ahab uses this to his advantage, because it gives him absolute power over his men; once the Pequod sets sail at the start of the story, it never touches land again.

Nature of Whaling 6: The mast-heads can be linked back to the watch-posts of ancient Egypt, where men used them to spy ahead on land. Everything in whaling can be linked back to the past; the process is one of taking useful and important things in other pursuits, and taking them on to the process of hunting whales.

Chapters 46 - 60

Nature of Whaling 7: There is a custom, when whaling ships meet, of having a conversation. This custom is not practiced among other types of ships, giving it a kind of honor among whalers. This reflects back on the earlier idea of a whaler being a microcosm of a country, with meetings with other so-called "countries" being extremely polite and civilized.

Chapters 61 - 75

Nature of Whaling 8: Despite all the long history, and the noble qualities of whaling, the actual practice of stripping the whale's carcass is a bloody, dangerous one, as is seen in this chapter, and a few others in the book. Men's lives are endangered on more than one occasion, and the ship's deck becomes covered with gore and blood from the dead whale. The carcass is thrown overboard and quickly devoured by hungry sharks.

Nature of Whaling 9: There is an honor between Queequeg and Ishmael when he is holding the rope connecting the two together, which dictates that if one man goes down, the other will go with him. This is done whenever the monkey-rope is used, like the idea of the captain going down with the ship. Whaling requires this sort of dependency between men; it inspires in their character a trust and moral strength.

Chapters 76 - 90

Nature of Whaling 10: Whaling goes back to the time of the Greeks, when Persius killed a whale to save his bride-to-be. It is even possibly connected to saints, like St. George and the Dragon. Because it has origins in such noble stories, it is a noble profession. This is curious, however, since these elder myths all tell tales of whales being killed to protect people, while the business of modern day whaling is to hunt the creatures down for profit.

Nature of Whaling 11: The men hunt a large group of whales, and one boat is caught inside. In the middle of the group, peaceful, calm young whales poke at the boat and seem playful. This sense of peace strongly contrasts with the vicious nature of the men attacking the whales, and the violence this inspires. The hunting of whales can be seen as the hunting on innocents.

Chapter 91 - 105

Nature of Whaling 12: Out of the whale comes the stuff known as sperm, and in order to prepare it, the men have to squeeze it. This creates a peaceful, easy feeling in Ishmael, and a deep affection for his fellow man. Whaling allows for physical contact not generally allowed on land. Reminiscent of the ambergris, it is also something soothing coming out of the internals of a living creature. (There is also a possible homo-erotic subtext at work; sperm and its connotations of sexuality, along with the grabbing of other men.)

Nature of Whaling 13: The business of whaling is a constant one; it is not stopped because you are tired, or busy doing something else. You have to hunt a whale when you see one, and make the situation fit the circumstances, rather than the other way around. Melville compares this to the nature of life itself, and the pursuit of truth: just when you've found a place to stand, or an idea to believe, after much hard searching, another challenge appears, and you're thrown back into the fray.

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